Field hockey hopes to build off success from last year

By Noah Steinberg-DiStefano

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After spending the summer months coaching the U.S. junior national team in Boston Massachusetts field hockey coach Justine Sowry is excited to be back in Amherst with her team.

Last year, the Minutewomen had one of their best seasons in recent memory, going 17-5 and finishing atop the Atlantic 10 standings before being eliminated in the Sweet Sixteen of the NCAA Championship. This season, Sowry has set the Elite Eight as a goal for her young team.

“Right now, we’re just focused on trying to move forward as a team,” Sowry said. “After our run to the Sweet Sixteen last year, making it to the elite eight is the next step.”

The road to the NCAA tournament certainly won’t be easy for UMass, which enters the 2009 season ranked No.17 in the Kookaburra/NFHCA Division I Preseason Poll. The success of Sowry and Co. in their 2008 campaign means a tougher schedule this season.. The Minutewomen are set to face off against six ranked opponents including games with No.3 Syracuse, No.8 Connecticut and No.10  James Madison.

A strong showing against ranked opponents will  help UMass better its RPI and ultimately secure a favorable matchup in the NCAA tournament. Coach Sowry believes that if the Minutewomen can win three out of their six games against ranked opponents, they will be in good shape. In its season opener against No.20 Providence, UMass got off on the right foot, coming away with a 1-0 victory.

After winning last season’s A-10 Championship, the Minutewomen enter this season as the clear-cut favorite to repeat. After going 6-0 in conference games last year, it will be important for UMass to continue to stay focused and win against in-conference competition if it hopes to secure a good seed in the NCAA tournament.

Compared to last season’s team, the group that will take the field for Sowry this year is a very young group of players, with seven freshmen on the roster, all of whom are expected to see significant playing time. The team also returns 13 players from last year’s squad, including five starters.

The team has a significant void to fill at forward with the loss of A-10 Offensive Player of the Year Katelyn Orlando. Senior forward Jill Powers and team captain Katie Kelly, the top returning scorers for the Minutewomen, are expected to take on the brunt of the load offensively.

Sowry will also utilize a completely new midfield after losing seniors Erin Parker and Mary Shea. She expects Cher King along with a group of talented young freshmen to fill the void left by the graduating seniors.

“We just have to grow game by game,” said Sowry. “We know chemistry doesn’t build overnight and it might take time, but I have a lot of confidence that we’ll be able to get it done.”

Sophomore goalkeeper Alesha Widdall earned Second-Team All-American honors last year as a freshman and should be a major asset for the Minutewomen defensively.

As the season progresses, and team chemistry continues to build, the Maroon and White should be in position to improve on last year’s impressive season. The Minutewomen will be tested early on with games against Boston University and No.9 Iowa in the opening weekend of school, prior to the start of classes. Sowry aims to keep her players focused on taking the season one game at a time, and putting themselves in the position to win come tournament time.

Noah Steinberg-DiStefano can be reached at [email protected]